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Marilyn McLeod: Defending democracy, from the library to the League of Women Voters

This story was originally published by The Columbia Missourian

Marilyn McLeod’s dedication to democracy started at the public library.

She spent 25 years serving the Columbia community at the Daniel Boone Regional Library before retiring in 2011.

Retirement gave her time to look for a new way to support the community, which led her into leadership with the League of Women Voters.

But whether in the library or at the polling station, her goal remains the same — to protect democracy.

“It’s something we have to treasure, our democracy” McLeod said. “It’s something we have to work for.”

The league and democracy

McLeod, 77, is now president of the Missouri League of Women Voters. She served as the Columbia League co-president from 2012 to 2014 and its president from 2019 to 2021. Right now, she is serving her second term as Missouri league president, a position that will end next year.

The League of Women Voters is a non-partisan group organized in 1920, shortly before women gained the right to vote in the United States. Since then the group has continued to empower and inform voters.

“The League of Women Voters’ priority is always elections and voting,” McLeod said. “Making sure that every eligible citizen is able to vote.”

In a busy election year, the league’s work is significant, holding candidate forums and pushing to get out the vote.

As Missouri league president, McLeod is responsible for monitoring the state legislature, elections and political activity. She also oversees local leagues and helps them when needed. Local, state and national leagues work together to fulfill their mission.

As a board member of the Columbia league, she helps with programming. Its “Lunch and Learn” series teaches community members about government and politics and McLeod is part of the oversight team.

“It’s a collaborative effort to try to do our best for the citizens,” she said.

The library and community

McLeod moved to Columbia in 1979 and began working with the Missouri Library Association. During her seven years with MLA, she was exposed to many librarians and loved how they cared for their community.

She discovered the importance of providing accurate information to the public and decided to pursue a library degree. In 1985 she was awarded the degree from the MU School of Library and Information Services.

In 1986, the Daniel Boone Regional Library became McLeod’s home for the next few decades. As head of reference, she recalls being far from the stereotypical, quiet, reserved librarian in legend and history.

“You just never knew who was going to come up to you, or was going to call you on the phone,” she said. “You never knew what the question was going to be.”

Finding information and ensuring its accuracy was a significant part of the job. McLeod believes citizens must be well-informed to be responsible voters who decide which candidates will assume power.

“The public library,” McLeod said, “is a core part of democracy.”

Fellow retired librarian Betsy Collins said she admires McLeod and is grateful to have had her as a mentor.

“She really cared passionately about the purpose of the public library and the role that it played in providing information for people,” Collins said.

Providing access to accurate information is more challenging today with the vast web at everyone’s fingertips. After the internet emerged, McLeod said she quickly had to learn the ropes.

With the library and other groups she worked on the Columbia Online Information Network and encouraged organizations to put their information on the web.

In the early years, she was often the first to talk to these groups about the internet, and she said it wasn’t always easy. Often, she would receive puzzled looks, but the payoff was satisfying.

“It was fascinating to see that change,” McLeod said.

Family and travel

Away from her league obligations, visiting small towns in Missouri is one of McLeod’s favorite pastimes. She often ventures into local vintage and secondhand stores looking for nothing in particular.

She goes in without a plan, she said, and always finds something good. Living in a 1950s ranch house gives her the perfect place to display her vintage finds.

Family is also an important aspect of McLeod’s life. When her daughter, Alison, was growing up, McLeod made sure she shared her love of the library. Now, her daughter is enshrining that same love of the library into her own children.

McLeod knocked on wood as she expressed how grateful she was to still be here. After her husband died, she is especially thankful to be able to watch her grandchildren grow up.

She and her daughter are especially close and enjoy spending time together, she said.

“She’s a great grandma,” said daughter Alison Robuck.

Before McLeod became a widow, she and her husband spent much of their time traveling. They explored national parks, drove down Route 66 and embarked on a Mediterranean cruise. Without him, McLeod said she is uncertain about more travel.

“I’ve kind of just put that aside,” she said, “ was fun to travel with him.”

Her daughter is stepping in to travel with her mom and remembers a trip she took with her mother from Missouri to Chicago and New York. They traveled by train and went to a few concerts in New York.

“That was a real adventure and that was a really good time for us,” Robuck said.

One thing McLeod is certain of is her enduring commitment to the League of Women Voters.

“I’m not really interested in politics,” she said. “I’m interested in democracy.”